On the final approach to Assisi, we’d jumped on the autostrada and skirted Perugia – a highway of tunnels and viaducts, with fleeting glimpses of suburban sprawl heading steeply upwards towards where we presumed the city centre lay. So it was no great surprise when the bus from the railway station to the town centre groaned almost vertically for what appeared to be several miles. The centre of the city – the capital of the Umbrian region – was a buzz of life, not least because of the unmissable presence of not just the Italian media, but a good swathe of that of the anglophone world. With impeccable timing, we’d arrived the day after the appeal court (right next door to the tourist office, in one of the two main squares of the city) freed Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito from their prison sentences for the murder of Meredith Kercher. TV vans were triple-parked, generators running and satellite dishes erect, as cables snaked towards makeshift studios under gazebos. At the whiff of a rumoured sighting, camera crews sprinted from one part of the town to another, dodging the waiters bringing the scriptwriters and producers endless coffee and wine.
Other crews recorded “flavour pieces”, a euphemism that seemed to be an excuse to indulge in a large lunch solely to record the waiter arriving with their food. We needed no such excuse, but we weren’t trying to justify the expense account. Still, the truffle risotto was superb, as were the chocolate confections in a renowned specialist cake shop, Pasticceria Sandri – Perugia is the capital of chocolate for Italians, and we’d missed the annual festival by a scant couple of weeks. Probably as well…
The rest of the city was almost as lively, too. A large student presence meandered through narrow streets and alleys, arches framing steep climbs and striking views across many miles of countryside stretching into the distance. We eventually returned to the station, reluctantly – but via a rather wonderful small urban tram system, the unfortunately named “MiniMetro”. Fortunately, reliability did not live up to the echoes of British Leyland…
Our next stop was – for once – north. The town of Gubbio is renowned as one of the most completely medieval in central Italy – and sits at the base of a large mountain, with a basilica high above it. This provides the excuse for what our Rough Guide described as an event second only to Siena’s Palio for “exuberence and bizarre pageantry“, with “mind-boggling” rules and rigmarole together with hours of “involved ritual” and drinking around it. The Corsa dei Ceri was not, of course, happening whilst we were there – but we got to see the three Ceri themselves, tall thin wooden totems of about 5m height and 350kg weight, together with their wooden carriages allowing each to be carried on the shoulders of eight men. They represent three saints, with the most important representing St Ubaldo, to whom the Basilica is home – he lies, gently withering after 900 years of death, in a glass case on the high altar. His Ceri always wins the annual saint race, with the other two merely having to arrive at the basilica before the doors are slammed in their faces. The DVD we watched in the museum showed an event that appeared to be alternating between exhilirating action and unwitting high comedy, as the three teams sprinted the several kilometres up the narrow hairpin streets inside and above the town, three times around a fountain or square, the bearers and runners changing frequently, with the Ceri toppling towards the crowd on many an occasion.
We did not feel like repeating their exertions, even to the extent that we took the funicular up to the basilica rather than walk. But, once you saw the funicular, you knew that no excuse was needed. It’s not really a funicular at all, but sort of a cross between a ski-lift and a series of wire umbrella stands. Each one held just two people, standing squished tight up to each other. As your carriage approached, you were pointed to two large red spots on the pavement. The front person then took a running jump at the fast-moving basket, followed by the rear person. The door was then slammed, narrowly missing your fingers, and you were off, soaring rapidly above a small ornamental lake full of terrapins towards the tree-lined slopes looming above. No deviation, repetition or hesitation allowed.
The detour northwards brought some reality home rapidly – the year is moving on apace. The Gubbio campsite had closed for the winter, and once off the major tourist trails, there are few to start with. A long and fruitless trawl back south found us with little option but to return to Assisi. The site we’d already been on for several days did not much appeal – we’d more or less run out of humour towards the coach loads (one male, one female…) of hormonal Hungarian teenagers in the rent-a-tents around the edge of the main site – but fortunately, we found that Assisi’s other site was still open, although not in the off-season discount card scheme that we’ve been using. As we headed towards it, a lack of signage suggesting it might not actually exist, discussing what price we’d regard as our “walk-away point”, we more or less resigned ourselves towards going back. As we neared, it looked much more promising than the flat wind-swept plains of the original site, terraced steeply through olive groves. When we found out that it was virtually the same price, considerably less than we’d been expecting, we were sold on it. And we were not disappointed.
Our route continued southwards, with the paucity of sites combining with a threatening-looking change in the weather. After Montefalco – more wonderful frescoes in a deconsecrated church, now a museum, together with the obligatory abysmal modern art exhibition; more shrivelled beatified corpses in display cases (two even sharing one case) in a slightly dilapidated church – we reached Spoleto, only to find another closed campsite, leaving us with a couple of miserable looking car parks. We decided that the city did not seem compelling enough to put up with them, so headed through the gorgeous mountains towards the Lago di Piediluca. Guess what? Another closed campsite. Back into the mountains, in search of a wild-camp spot, as night approached rapidly. We couldn’t even find anything tempting for that – merely rubbish-strewn laybys with trucks hammering past, or back tracks that would have left us blocking field entrances or sitting at steep angles. So a choice of Spoleto’s car parks it was. An evening wander round the town (“perhaps Umbria’s most compelling, and many people’s central Italian favourite“, allegedly) found it utterly deserted, leaving us the only customers in one pleasant wine bar (they took pity on us and brought a selection of delicious nibbles) except for one full-to-capacity cafe in the very centre. Our return to the car park found a small corner of life, though, with an elderly gentleman feeding all the feral cats…
The weather continued to look threatening as we headed southwards towards a site we knew to be open, in the mountainous National Park of Abruzzo. Our route there took us through another town currently in the media due to a criminal trial – l’Aquila. Several of the government’s most senior seismological and geological advisors are just starting to be tried for manslaughter over the advice they gave around the minor pre-shocks of the 2009 earthquake, which left the city devastated, 300+ people dead and thousands homeless. As we’d headed down from Gubbio, we’d gone past the small town of Nocera Umbra, which had been badly hit in the 1997 earthquake best known for causing relatively minor damage to Assisi. There was little remaining sign of it, with only a couple of the (seemingly ubiqutous for any hill town) cranes visible above the various towers and spires. It is possible for towns to recover quickly, it seems, from such major natural disasters – but l’Aquila is a long way off. Whole areas of the city sit, awaiting demolition. Makeshift supports try to prevent further casualties, but to little to hide the reality. Railings bear photos of those who’d died inside. On the outskirts, there are many stretches of new blocks of flats – with car parks full of campervans, presumably the temporary accomodation of choice for a large number of families in the immediate aftermath.
On arriving in Abruzzo, we found that the national park is a beautiful area. The site sits in the shadow of several mountains, with a choice of walking trails heading off from a park centre barely a couple of hundred metres up the road. A very pleasant and knackering Saturday was spent following one trail – barely five or six kilometres horizontally, but over 800m of ascent as we headed up through trees and rocks, before eventually emerging onto a ridge with truly panoramic views.
After returning back to the site, we sat around a camp fire, chatting to the only other people staying – Jonathan and Heather, a British couple who recognised our van from the first site in Assisi. As we arrived, Ellie’s 2cvgb fleece was immediately spotted – it turned out that Heather is a long-term 2cver and club member, too. The evening turned into night, as the pile of firewood shrank rapidly. Wildlife was heard in the distance – logic says that the noises in several directions were almost certainly cows, albeit very unusual sounding ones. Imagination firmly pegged them as some of the park’s wild bears. Before we left, wild boar were clearly spotted running through the trees alongside the site’s boundary wall.
In the morning, we rapidly decided that any plans for walking or cycling that day were not going to happen. The precipitation that greeted us as we sprinted towards the facilities was not entirely liquid. The day didn’t improve, either – and by lunchtime, we were staring out of sleet-lashed van windows wondering exactly what we’d done wrong. The afternoon and evening were spent – for about the first time since we left the UK in May – watching some of the TV and films that we’d downloaded and brought with us on the laptop. The morning dawned more brightly, revealing a light dusting of snow on the grass, with the mountains looking picturesque. The lower altitudes nearer the coast, further south, couldn’t fail to be anything but better than this – but first we had to leave the area. After persuading the van to start – heavy use of heater, stereo and lights had taken their toll on the main battery – the road wound upwards into the mountains, the dusting on the verge turning deeper. Then the road started to whiten slightly. By the time we got to the pass, we were following wheeltracks more in hope than certainty.
Fortunately, the view as we crested was drastically different. Green and blue dominated again, in all directions.
More than any other, this week has affected our short-term plans. We are now seriously starting to plan for winter, mulling our options around and trying to make sense of them.